By: Joe DeMartin ’21 (he/him), Political Correspondant
On Tuesday, February 2nd, a clip of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s appearance on Newsmax, a far-right, conspiracy-propagating television network, went viral on Twitter. Newsmax guests and hosts are decidedly pro-Trump, even more so than those on Fox News. Lindell was invited to talk about Twitter’s banning of his and his company’s accounts, but the segment quickly devolved into Lindell’s recitation of baseless voter fraud conspiracy theories regarding Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic — two election technology companies.
Lindell is one of those figures whose political prominence could only exist in the aftermath of the Trump administration — its dark comedy only superseded by its existential threat to democratic governance.
Newsmax anchor Bob Sellers attempted to cut Lindell off: “Mike, Mike, Mike. … We at Newsmax have not been able to verify any of those kinds of allegations. We just want to let people know that there’s nothing substantive that we have seen. And let me read you something.” Sellers then read from what sounded like a legal disclaimer — “The election results in every state were certified, and Newsmax accepts the results as legal and final. The courts have also supported that view” — and tried desperately to return the conversation to the original topic, “cancel culture.” Sellers’ efforts were to no avail. Lindell kept shouting and repeating his false claims, leading Sellers to walk off the set in frustration.
While this interview may spark laughter, its context is actually quite significant in defining the necessary path forward for the continued health of American democracy.
Our story began in the early afternoon of November 19th at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee in Washington D.C. Packed into a claustrophobic conference room were about a dozen or so reporters waiting for Donald Trump’s lawyers to start a press conference that was billed as an update to the campaign’s legal challenges to the 2020 election results. The room was sparsely decorated with five american flags and a small poster with a map titled “Multiple Pathways to Victory.” On this map, the campaign highlighted six states — Nevada, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Georgia — where their legal challenges were focused. To this point, Trump’s litigation team had a dismal record of one win and 29 losses. Judges, Republican- and Democrat-appointed alike, were hearing none of the meritless allegations of mass voter fraud that Trump and his legal team were selling; they demanded that Trump’s team put up the evidence they supposedly had or get out of court.
The press conference was a shambolic disaster marked by conspiracy-laden rants and dripping hair dye. But the most relevant portion of the press conference for our story is from then-Trump attorney Sidney Powell. Powell begins her portion of the show by positing a conspiracy about Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic that started with a QAnon post. She baselessly claimed that there was a “massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba, and likely China that used Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic software to “set and run an algorithm that probably ran all over the country to flip a certain percentage of votes from President Trump and flipped them to President Biden.” This theory is, of course, absurd and has been fact-checked numerous times by myriad media outlets. But it didn’t stop Trump’s most fervent supporters in the media from repeating these claims over and over again.
The cycle of misinformation took its toll. A QAnon election fraud conspiracy theory made its way through Trump allies to Trump himself. Then right-wing media picked it up, followed by Republican elected officials voting against the certification of the Electoral College results. It was many of these same claims made by Trump and his loyalists that were cited by the insurrectionists who stormed the capitol on January 6th. Now, a significant portion of the country (73 percent of Republicans, according to this Quinnipiac poll) believes that Joe Biden is an illegitimate President, winner of an illegitimate election. It’s important to recognize the deep, long-lasting impacts of Trump’s Big Lie: that the results of the 2020 election were fraudulent. This belief represents the fundamental corrosion of our institutions indicative of the Trump era. And we saw on January 6th the endpoint of these lies: a violent assault on the democratic process. Tragically, five people died. Were it not for the heroic efforts of people like Eugene Goodman it could have been so much worse. Next time, we may not be so lucky.
A chief question for those who are interested in the continued health of American democracy is how to prevent what happened on January 6th from ever happening again. It will take a concerted effort to dispel the Big Lie. But those who believe the Lie don’t trust traditional media, elected Democrats, or election officials. The only way the health of democracy can be restored is if those who actually promulgated the Big Lie admit to people that they lied about the election results.
The obvious issue with such a solution is that it defies the political interest of those who lied to admit they were liars. If such a large portion of the Republican base believes fervently that the election was stolen, why would a Republican office-holder or conservative media outlet go out of their way to anger them by telling them the truth?
That is where Dominion and Smartmatic come back into the fold. Over the past month, both companies have filed (or threatened) billion dollar defamation lawsuits against right-wing media outlets and other propagators of the Lie. Fox News, Rudy Guiliani, and Sidney Powell have all been sued for defamation. And according to spokespeople for both companies, more lawsuits are coming. Already, the threat of legal action media has prompted media companies to distance themselves from the views they once spread with reckless abandon — sometimes with awkward, on-air corrections. That’s what we saw with Mike Lindell’s appearance on Newsmax. A company that had spread falsehoods about the election, now under threat of legal action, was forced to tell its viewers the truth. Lindell’s latest documentary feature “Absolute Proof” — which purports to reveal “absolute proof” of voter fraud in the 2020 election (were the claims not to “catch on,” Lindell said it would be a sign of “the end of time”) — was broadcast on One America News, a similarly conspiratorial right-wing channel with a stunning disclaimer. It’s worth watching all 90 seconds of it, but here is part of it: “The views, opinions, and claims expressed in this program… are not adopted or endorsed by OAN or its owners. In particular, OAN does not adopt or endorse any statements or opinions in this program regarding the following entities or people: US Dominion Inc. (and any related entities); Smartmatic USA Corp… Further the statements and claims expressed in this program are presented at this time as opinions only and are not intended to be taken or interpreted by the viewer as established facts.”
These steps are all important, but it will take a more holistic effort to restore civic health. Truthfully, in my view, it will take Donald Trump himself admitting he lied to change most minds; it is unclear whether or not that will happen.
For now, we can be thankful for these heretofore unknown technology companies for their role in safeguarding our elections while reflecting on how fragile our imperfect democracy is.